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Drifting away: De-occupying the Palestinian self

Filmmaker Amber Fares' Speed Sisters (2015) focuses on an all-female Palestinian race-car driving team

Sophie Chamas, Sunday 17 Jan 2016
Speed Sisters
Still from Speed Sisters' official trailer.

“If only you’d resist the occupation with something other than sports and fashion,” complained a YouTube user in the comments section of a video about the Speed Sisters—an all-female Palestinian race-car driving team in the West Bank, and the first of its kind in the Middle East.

The comment is mentioned in the documentary Speed Sisters, by filmmaker Amber Fares (2015). The film shadows the five enthusiastic race-car drivers, highlighting the experiences that pushed them towards the sport; the sometimes cordial and supportive, sometimes tense and competitive, dynamic within the team; the familial and communal responses to race-car driving and female involvement in it; and, not surprisingly, its relationship with the occupation.

The film is structured chronologically around a series of official races that take place throughout the year, in which the women compete against one another for the fastest time, the title of champion, and the honor of representing Palestine in international races. A significant portion of the film, however, takes place behind the scenes, in the different parts of the Occupied Territories where the “sisters” live—in geographic proximity but stark experiential disparity.

Through intimate glimpses into the seemingly ordinary aspects of their day-to-day lives—where they work, what their hobbies are, what routes they routinely navigate—the film manages, without much commentary, to portray the fragmented, diverse life-worlds that exist in the Occupied Territories. Here differences in class, identity documents, familial responsibility, communal piety, and more have cultivated a multitude of ways of being under an occupation that does not necessarily impose itself indiscriminately—its oppressive effects mediated and shaped by a variety of conditions.

While the film does not confront the occupation as a subject directly, it does not attempt to stop its inevitable seeping into the narrative either. Instead, it allows its impact on even the most mundane aspects of daily life to assert itself. Team captain Maysoon, for example, laughs as she passes the notorious Qalandia checkpoint amidst tear gas and gunfire, seemingly desensitized to this everyday spectacle of violence. “I remember my childhood during the first Intifada,” she says casually. “We used to breathe it on our way to and from school.”

Marah is arguably the Speed Sister most passionately committed to the sport, her devotion tinged with a desperate desire to hold onto what she frames as her only means of release from the often stifling conditions of life in the Jenin refugee camp. Unlike, for example, self-sufficient business owner Maysoon, or Noor, whose family home discloses her middle to upper middle class standing, Marah does not have a Jerusalem ID, which would allow her access to Haifa, Akka, and “the sea in Jaffa” without the need for a difficult-to-secure permit from the Israeli authorities. This perhaps explains the other women’s comparatively casual approach to the sport, with Noor taking her repeated losses in the filmed races fairly well and Maysoon coming to terms relatively easily with her upcoming move to Amman to be with her new husband.

In contrast, Marah’s father is a dental technician who says he works eighteen to twenty hours a day in anticipation of any potential crackdown, curfew, or war that might obstruct his ability to support his family. As her number one fan, he temporarily set aside his aspiration to purchase a plot of familial land in order to buy Marah a race-car. This highlights the collective catharsis that her involvement in the Speed Sisters enables her family to experience routinely, and which, not surprisingly, also burdens her with a sense of hefty responsibility.   

Speed Sisters
Still from Speed Sisters' official trailer

The film follows the Speed Sisters as they navigate the socio-cultural difficulties of engaging in an activity not only new to Palestine, but conventionally deemed unsuitable for women. While some of their relatives and compatriots view their racing as a source of pride, others frame it as inappropriate, as a waste of time, or as a tolerated but ephemeral practice to be abandoned when the women begin building proper careers or families.

In navigating a plethora of responses, the film again composes a complicated picture of Palestinian society, avoiding problematic dichotomies like modernity/tradition, conservative/liberal, and pious/secular. It thus highlights the multiplicity of desires and norms at play in the Occupied Territories and, in turn, the variety of competing discourses in circulation within it. Marah’s grandfather had hoped she would become a doctor and open a clinic, welcoming all of Jenin’s residents as her clients. Maysoon’s family asks why she doesn’t wear the veil. Perpetually dolled-up Betty emphasises her mother’s insistence that she always look her best, which in her case seems to imply tight-fighting clothing, acrylic nails, and deep makeup.

But Speed Sisters also highlights the ways in which race car driving, while simultaneously allowing women to subvert and/or transcend certain gender norms, can be co-opted by patriarchal figures and used to re-inscribe such codes. While Marah is the most successful of the five with the strongest record, Betty is regularly favored by the judges and the Palestinian racing federation who, for example, refuse to penalize her even for significant violations (for example, racing with an open trunk), while disqualifying Marah several times for any and all infractions.

There seems to be a constant attempt to condition the races in order to increase Betty’s chances at winning, and this does not go unnoticed by the other race-car drivers. Maysoon comments on the fact that despite Marah’s greater technical success, she was never able to garner the fame that Betty has, becoming the face of Palestinian female racing. Aware of this dynamic, Betty credits her beauty and femininity as significant contributors to her popularity. “I’m a brand,” she says.

It is easy to see the Speed Sisters and their sport as an exercise in distraction and escapism within the context of a debilitating occupation. Racing can be read as a practice that allows these women and their enthusiastically supportive families to literally transport themselves, albeit temporarily, out of the tightly bounded space in which they are hermetically sealed. The mechanisms of routine structural violence and discipline are meant to disable resistance not only by making it nearly impossible to engage in physically, but also to snuff out or de-cultivate the sensibilities and dispositions that fuel it—the attachment to tangible, possible futures imagined as both desirable and achievable; a preserved sense of human dignity in need of fierce protection; and solidarity and communal identity across checkpoints, refugee camps, and inaccessible nation-states.  

Faced with so few opportunities to act agentively, Manal, Betty, Mona, Noor, and Marah can be understood as retreating into a space of pseudo-mobility—the race car—that can provide them with a false, fleeting sense of freedom. The race car might be seen as a sanctuary where the occupation is temporarily suspended and where, as an ostensible result and consequence, it cannot be resisted. In setting aside or stepping out of the zone of oppression, these women—or so the perspective of the YouTube commentator mentioned at the start of this article seems to suggest—are also setting aside the battle against it.

Speed Sisters
Still from Speed Sisters' official trailer

There are, however, alternative ways of perceiving the Speed Sisters’ insistence on “release,” as they call it. In his book on the popularity of joyriding among some Saudi youth in Riyadh, Pascal Menoret asks: “if class struggle is inscribed in space but demonstrations, sit-ins, and strikes are banned, what spatial form can that struggle take?” He frames drifting as “a way to reclaim alienating and threatening urban spaces” in a city that has “become a disciplinary space, where social and economic pressures enclosed individuals in tiny, dehumanizing routines, and where all shades of public debate were banned.”

Palestinians in the Occupied Territories can also be described as living, like the Saudi youth described by Menoret, a form of “internal exile”—albeit of a drastically different sort, facilitated by an occupation that not only destroys but also coercively cultivates ways of being. In many ways, the productive power of the Israeli occupation can be a more effective tool than its destructive power, not just for the suppression of resistance, but for the structuring of it as an impossibility. It arranges the conditions of daily life in such a way that one’s existence becomes goalless and/or pointless, preoccupied with and whittled down to survival. This means bearing with a space and condition that one is sealed into but over which one cannot exercise much (or any) control, allowing only for its careful navigation with the intention of bringing as little pain onto oneself and one’s loved ones as possible.

Under circumstances of “ideal occupation,” the Palestinian will come to lack purpose and direction other than making it through a given day; her present is forced to unfold on a humdrum loop that dismantles the ability to imagine alternative tomorrows.

But when the Speed Sisters arrive at their training area, which borders Ofer Prison, the only Israeli detention center in the West Bank, they are breaking with this routine. That is, they are engaging in an anti-disciplinary or alternative disciplinary measure, the thrilling nature of which has the capacity to jolt the body and, perhaps, facilitate a de-numbing: to counter the sedative effects of an occupation that desensitizes as it inflicts pain by making itself ubiquitous and ordinary, fostering a kind of resigned detachment.

By getting in their cars and speeding across a makeshift track with the threatening eyes of IDF soldiers fixed on their vulnerable bodies, these Palestinian women can be seen as regularly practicing a kind of rupturing. It is an act that undermines the occupation’s routine attempts to foster an apathetic Palestinian subject capable or even desirous of nothing more than coping with a status quo perceived as irreversible and unchangeable.  

Speed Sisters
Still from Speed Sisters' official trailer

“We’re tired of seeing the same streets and faces. It’s not easy for us to break with routine,” explains Marah from Jenin. Racing has come to sit at the center of her life. She says she feels a responsibility to make Jenin proud and is egged on by her father. The team, and the formal races they regularly participate in throughout the year, constitute an alternative or subversive routine, as they actively and regularly undermine the hegemonic one imposed by the occupation as a means of trapping Palestinians in a numbing cycle of regimented hardship.

Racing allows a literal, physical form of limited mobility, not only to the drivers but also to their families and supporters; it gives them an official reason for traveling to other parts of the Occupied Territories and even Jordan. It also offers a more visceral form of movement towards a goal, towards championships, titles, and new records that allow for the cultivation of honor, pride, dignity, and self-respect for the driver, her family, and her community.

While, in the Saudi Arabian context discussed by Menoret, a “politics of fun” manifests as “a way to flaunt extreme leisure in the face of state repression,” and as an “extreme practice that continuously ‘unbuilds’ the city,” in the case of the Speed Sisters and the West Bank it can be understood as both produced by and productive of the virtue of sumud, or steadfastness, so often associated with Palestinians and their sense of self and nation.

It is through the Speed Sisters’ insistence on remaining committed to their sport—through a determination to find a training space, to speed across even the most modest stretches of land, to cling to a source of pride and purpose within an increasingly limited, humiliating, and alienating space, and to assert their presence in and belonging to this territory, however hostile it might increasingly be—that allows race car driving as portrayed in this film to emerge as a form of Palestinian resistance. This is because it has the potential to impact subjectivity, and to hinder or unmake the docile subject that the occupation is invested in shaping.

It is by thinking of the occupation and Israeli power as not only obstructing but also working on Palestinian subjectivities, of not only attempting to destroy but attempting to construct a certain kind of Palestine and Palestinian, that acts such as race car driving can emerge as a form of counter-discipline and, therefore, resistance.

Despite the hopeful tone that seems to underpin much of the documentary, it is punctured by what it presents as the tragic temporariness of race car driving. Perhaps as an extension, it suggests the precariousness of everyday resistance more generally, regularly challenged by the temptation to move on from the conflict or from permanent struggle when the opportunity to do so presents itself. As two of the characters prepare to wed, one will leave the West Bank for Jordan while the other will abandon racing for married life. An existence dedicated to a resistance without a foreseeable resolution or endpoint, the implication seems to be, is a difficult one to remain committed to.

Speed Sisters
Still from Speed Sisters' official trailer

On a more critical note, while the documentary’s strength emanates from its subject matter and the compelling women it focuses on, the filmmaker’s apparent attempt to make her characters familiar to a foreign audience and to foster sympathy for them tends to marginalize the occupation, and politics more generally. These are relegated to the peripheries of the film—perhaps unintentionally, perhaps purposefully. Naturally, the occupation crawls its way back to center, as discussed earlier, informing as it does nearly all aspects of Palestinian life in the Occupied Territories, prompting the viewer to potentially ask, as I have here, whether the practice of race-car driving contributes to or deviates from resistance.

It is, however, hard to ignore the “feel-good” nature of the film, punctuated as it is with upbeat Western popular music and comedic engagements with violence—Maysoon laughs at Qalandia tension, Betty gets hit in the behind with a teargas canister and is mocked by her fellow Speed Sisters—and the implications of that approach for a film about life in the Occupied Territories. 

The film also sometimes gives the impression that it is attempting to make Palestinians and the Palestinian condition “digestible” to a foreign audience, highlighting, only in a superficial way, the difficulties that interrupt, complicate, and dampen their everyday lives without venturing too much into “controversial” or “political” territory. The film presents a traffic jam near a checkpoint, and a soldier shooting a tear gas canister, but all without much elaboration or context. It thus presents a population being aggressively managed, but skims over the historical horrors that enabled this present and the appalling nature of the status quo.

At other moments, the film also appears to be engaged in a problematic attempt to make its characters recognizable, emphasizing their command of English and their fondness for and adoption of various features of Western popular culture (fashion trends and turns of phrase, for example). In so doing, however, the film makes visible the one-directional porosity of the (constantly shifting) borders around the Occupied Territories, across which Palestinians have an inordinately hard time moving but through which Western cultural forms, values, and norms seem to regularly pass, transported by educational institutions, the media, NGO workers, and more. Unseen by many, Palestinians can see and absorb select elements of the outside world. In this manner, however, the film runs the risk of making sympathy for and solidarity with Palestinians contingent upon their successful acquiescence to Western conceptions of proper comportment and resistance, instead of drawing attention to the history and anatomy of an occupation that has enabled many of the practices, beliefs, and sensibilities those on the outside cannot make sense of.

Despite its sometimes superficial treatment of the occupation and questionable framing of its Palestinian protagonists, Speed Sisters does succeed in highlighting one of the many ways in which Palestinians continue to cultivate their commitment to struggle and their sense of nationhood despite the occupation’s active attempt to obstruct and undo such processes. Also, by zooming in on the seemingly banal details of everyday life in the West Bank, Speed Sisters manages to present a more nuanced and layered portrayal of the micro-dynamics that fragment it as a lived space—complexities that can be overlooked by a mere focus on the overarching occupation.

*This article was first published in Jadaliyya

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